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Environmental Education Exchange founder Markowitz empowers kids

Neil Markowitz

Neil Markowitz, 61, has been a contributing member of the Tucson community for over 25 years. His work in founding and running the Environmental Education Exchange (E3) as well as the time he gives to Jewish organizations has made an impact felt across the region.

Markowitz has been working on environmental issues since the 1970s. He studied at Rutgers University, earning his undergraduate degree in international environmental studies. During his sophomore year he decided to take a break from academics and spent 1979 and ’80 in Israel, working with the Israeli Ministry of the Environment in Jerusalem, helping them propagate air quality regulations.

After returning to Rutgers and finishing his degree, Markowitz spent a summer working for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I then realized I loved children and working with kids,” Markowitz says. “I didn’t probably want to be in a classroom, but I wanted to find a way I could work with kids and the environment.”

He got a Master of Science in environmental education at the University of Michigan before going to teach at a university in Australia. “I taught environmental education, outdoor education and other miscellaneous classes,” Markowitz says. “I got to Australia at the end of ‘82 and I was there through ’85 or ’86, so three and a half years.”

In the spring of 1991, Markowitz founded the Environmental Education Exchange in Tucson. The nonprofit works with agencies, organizations, and other nonprofits to develop curriculum material for K-12.

“It could be water conservation, something about recycling, something about natural protected species or habitats, energy, renewable energy, all sorts of things,” Markowitz says. “What I’m trying to embed in people, in kids, as they grow into themselves and into adults, is that they have agency over their lives.”

Partnering with the Southern Arizona Jewish community

In addition to serving as CEO of E3, Markowitz is a member of the Jewish History Museum board and vice chair of the Jewish Community Foundation’s board of trustees.

“He’s like a sage,” says Sol Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum. “He is somebody that I turned to because he has deeper wisdom; he’s always available to provide guidance and help reflect on some challenges of the work. He’s a real treasure for our Jewish community to have in a leadership position across various agencies.”

Markowitz was not always so involved with his Jewish heritage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in what he describes as a “somewhat spiritually desiccated Conservative congregation.” It wasn’t until he discovered the Jewish Renewal movement while in Israel that he was able to more deeply explore his spirituality. “It was really my experiences with Renewal that gave me more motivation to work with the Jewish community.”

Aside from the Renewal movement, he credits Stuart Mellan, former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, as inspiration to be more involved with the Jewish community.

“[Stuart] worked generationally to support all the Jewish institutions here in Tucson. He’s an amazing person,” Markowitz says. “There’s a range of political and social perspective in the Jewish community and in our world today that can become very divisive in people and Stu did an amazing job in trying to bring everybody together for the benefit of the Jewish community, and the community at large, to try and get those people from across political divides to work together.”

Mellan and Markowitz have been friends for over 25 years. “He’s a very driven guy,” Mellan says. “He has a very substantial work life so to be so devoted to Jewish community work is really notable.”

Mellan also gives Markowitz kudos for his organization, which has had great success over the years. “I’ve watched corporations and public institutions reach out to his nonprofit to ask for services from them because really in terms of developing curriculum they are very creative.”

While COVID-19 has turned everybody’s world upside down, the Environmental Education Exchange hasn’t let the pandemic stop its work, it’s just shifted. With Zoom, E3 has been able to live stream classes, and staff are currently creating a series of activity booklets that link to videos for kids to study on a range of topics.

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.